Time bomb on top of the world
It is hard to imagine any more devastating effect of climate change than the fires that have been kindled in California, Oregon and Washington, or the procession of hurricanes that have approached and, at times, devastated the US Gulf Coast. There have also been deadly tidal waves in Pakistan and Europe, and devastating floods in Southeast Asia. But there is much worse ahead, with a particularly great danger that alone threatens humanity itself: The rapid destruction of Arctic sea ice.
Recalling a movie by Alfred Hitchcock, this climate bomb which could double the rate of global warming has a timer that is being watched with increasing anxiety. Every September, the Arctic Sea ice sheet reaches its lowest level before prolonged darkness and temperatures drop for it to start expanding again. At this point, scientists compare its extent to previous years.
The results should scare us all. This year, measurements from the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, show that there is less ice in the Arctic than ever before, and newly published research shows that winter sea ice in the Bering Arctic hit that lowest level in 5,500 years in 2018 and 2019.
Across the Arctic, sea ice reached its second-lowest extent ever on September 15th. Quantities vary from year to year, but the trend is inevitably declining: September 14th with less sea ice has all been in the last 14 years.
But sea ice is not just covering a smaller area; it is also thinner than ever. The oldest sea ice (more than four years old), which is more resistant to melting, now comprises less than 1 percent of all sea ice cover. First year ice now dominates, leaving the sea cover more brittle and faster to melt. Scientists now think the Arctic Ocean could be almost ice-free in late summer within a decade or two.
The effects would be catastrophic. In the extreme scenario, which could occur within decades, the loss of all ice during the entirety of the sunny months would produce radiant global warming equivalent to the addition of 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. To put this in perspective, in the 270 years since the start of the Industrial Revolution, 2.4 trillion tons of carbon dioxide have been added to the atmosphere. About 30 percent of Arctic warming has already been added to the climate due to ice lost between 1979 and 2016 and more heat follows quickly as more remaining ice is lost.
This extreme scenario would push climate change forward for 25 years, and is hard to imagine. Just last month, a block of ice about twice the size of Manhattan broke off the largest Arctic ice shelf in northeastern Greenland after record summer temperatures.
Meanwhile, on land, Greenland ice is also in danger. With Arctic warming occurring at least twice as fast as the average global warming, Greenland’s melting rate has at least tripled over the past two decades. It is believed that this will become irreversible in a decade or even sooner. Eventually, this melting will cause sea levels to rise up to 7 meters, drowning coastal cities, although this peak will most likely not be reached for hundreds of years.
Urgent action is needed to mitigate the extraordinary, even existential, dangers facing humanity.
Mario Molina & Durwood Zaelke
Complicating the Arctic heat acceleration problem is the risk of self-amplifying the permanent freezing thaw reaction. With about twice as much carbon trapped in permanent freezing than is already in the atmosphere, the release of even a portion of it can be catastrophic. Melting permafrost would also release even more powerful greenhouse gases: Nitric oxide and methane. As global temperatures rise, it is also possible that even more methane could be emitted by the Eastern Siberian Arctic Heads into the shallow seabed.
It is clear that urgent action is needed to mitigate these extraordinary and existential risks. Rapid reduction of carbon dioxide emissions is necessary, but not nearly sufficient. In fact, studies show that even rapid cuts of carbon dioxide will only mitigate only about 0.1 to 0.3 degrees Celsius of carbon dioxide heat by 2050.
This is why it is also essential to reduce emissions of so-called short-lived climate pollutants: Methane, carbon black, hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) and tropospheric ozone. Such an action could emit six times more heat than the reductions in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. In general, eliminating emissions of these super pollutants would halve the overall global warming rate and reduce global warming. projected Arctic by two-thirds.
Some progress is being made. Almost four years ago, in Kigali, Rwanda, 197 countries adopted an amendment to the Montreal Protocol focused on giving up HFCs. Already, the Montreal Protocol has facilitated the removal of nearly 100 chemicals that feed global warming and endanger the ozone layer.
Moreover, in the US, the Senate last month reached a bilateral agreement to reduce HFC production and imports by 85 percent by 2036. California, for its part, has reduced black carbon emissions by 90 percent since by the 1960s and will halve the remainder by 2030. And the U.S. Climate Alliance a bipartisan group of 25 state governors has set a goal of reducing methane emissions by 40 to 50 percent by 2030.
These are commendable goals. But achieving them, let alone the most ambitious goals needed to stop global warming, will require us to overcome the strong wind of the head.
Mario Molina, a 1995 Nobel laureate in chemistry, was a professor at the University of California, San Diego and the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Durwood Zaelke is President of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development and a co-director of the Governance Program for Sustainable Development at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Responsibility: The views expressed by the writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Arab News.
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